A Philosopher's Blog

Smokescreens & Sebelius

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on October 9, 2013
Official portrait of United States Health and ...

Official portrait of United States Health and Human Services Secretary . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On October 7, 2013 Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was the guest on the Daily Show. Given that Jon Stewart is often regarded as a liberal mouthpiece, most folks probably expected that this would be a mutual admiration sort of interview. However, things certainly turned out rather differently as Stewart did what “real” journalists rarely do: he raised an important concern and refused to allow the person to shift the issue.

The question raised was one that certainly should be answered, namely the question of why large businesses were granted a delay in their implementation of Obamacare while individuals did not receive the same delay. While there should certainly be a fair and rational answer to this question, Sebelius went into verbal acrobatics to avoid answering it. This tactic is known as the smokescreen/red herring in philosophy:

A Red Herring is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.  A common variation on this is the smokescreen: it functions like a red herring, but the attempt at diversion involves piling on complexities on the original issue until it is lost in the verbal smoke. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

1. Topic A is under discussion.

2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).

3. Topic A is abandoned.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.

In the case of Sebelius, her attempts to switch to other issues and to pile on other matters did not answer Stewart’s reasonable question. In general, people use this tactic in response to a question when they either 1) have no answer to the question or 2) have a problematic or bad answer to the question. In the case of Sebelius, I would suspect that the second option holds: she almost certainly has an answer, but it almost certainly is not a good one.

Stewart seems to have drawn this sort of conclusion regarding Sebelius’ maneuvering:

“I still don’t understand why individuals have to sign up and businesses don’t, because if the businesses — if she’s saying, ‘well, they get a delay because that doesn’t matter anyway because they already give health care,’ then you think to yourself, ‘fuck it, then why do they have to sign up at all. And then I think to myself, ‘well, maybe she’s just lying to me.’”

In terms of why this question matters, one obvious point of concern is the matter of fairness. If large businesses get a year delay, then fairness would seem to require that the same courtesy be extended to individuals.

It might be countered that there is a relevant difference between large businesses and individuals that warrants the difference in treatment. If so, Sebelius should have simply presented this difference or differences and that would have quickly settled the matter. For example, it might be the case that a large business would need more time to implement the change on such a large scale, while an individual just has to implement it for herself. But, Sebelius provided no such relevant difference and spent her time trying throw out red herrings and blow smoke. This suggests that she was either ignorant of a relevant difference or was aware that the difference did not actually justify the difference in treatment. That is, there is no legitimate relevant difference.  Given her position, the explanation based on her ignorance seems unlikely, so the reasonable conclusion is that she knew the answer, but believes that it would make things look worse than engaging in evasion. Of course, it is also possible that such evasion are just a matter of how politicians operate—like the famous scorpion being carried across the river, they cannot deviate from their nature. In any case, Sebelius’ behavior creates the impression that something is wrong here and creating this impression is, I am sure, not what she intended in her interview.

Interestingly, while this difference between businesses and individuals is a legitimate point of criticism, the Republicans seem to have little interest in engaging Obamacare in depth on points where it actually generates legitimate concerns. While the Republicans have noted that they want to defund or delay Obamacare, they seem to be unable to avoid hyperbole and other excesses of defective rhetoric. I suspect that this occurs for a variety of reasons. One possibility is that they are also like that scorpion: they simply cannot bring themselves to engage the matter of Obamacare in a rational way—instead, they have to sting away with crazy rhetoric and a government shutdown. Another possibility is that they believe that engaging in the actual issues will be bad for them in some manner. A third possibility, which is more specific than the second,  is that they believe that their target audience is best played to by such rhetoric and behavior and that they would be ill served politically by engaging on actual issues in a rational manner. As a final possibility, they might not actually care about Obamacare as such—rather, they are simply out to oppose Obama and Obamacare happens to be the point of contention. To use an analogy, they are like Meletus in the Apology—they are not concerned with what they claim to be concerned about, they are just out to get their man.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Enhanced by Zemanta

19 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2013 at 9:22 am

    “While the Republicans have noted that they want to defund or delay Obamacare, they seem to be unable to avoid hyperbole and other excesses of defective rhetoric.”

    Mike, here is some of the Democratic rhetoric aimed against Republicans coming from top Democrats. I challenge you to provide anything remotely comparable coming from top Republicans.

    Talk show hosts don’t count.

    1. “Unhinged” Arsonists–Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

    2. Insane People Who “Have Lost their Minds” — Harry Reid

    3. “People with a Bomb Strapped to their Chest” (aka Terrorists) — Dan Pfeiffer

    4. Blatant Extortionists — Jay Carney

    5. “Legislative Arsonists” — Nancy Pelosi

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2013 at 3:08 pm

        I thought Christians regarded the End Time as something positive, indicating the Second Coming of Christ?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 10, 2013 at 2:04 pm

          While the actual End Time is supposed to be awful, it is supposed to be inevitable and ultimately the predecessor to the Second Coming, as you noted. So, it is odd that Bachmann would condemn a sign of the End-after all, the signs of the end are presumably determined by God and inevitable, so Obama would just be playing his role as he must.

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2013 at 9:03 pm

        Obama lied, the economy died.

        One of the nation’s top credit-rating agencies says that the U.S. Treasury Department is likely to continue paying interest on the government’s debt even if Congress fails to lift the limit on borrowing next week, preserving the nation’s sterling AAA credit rating.

        In a memo being circulated on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Moody’s Investors Service offers “answers to frequently asked questions” about the government shutdown, now in its second week, and the federal debt limit. President Obama has said that, unless Congress acts to raise the $16.7 trillion limit by next Thursday, the nation will be at risk of default.

        Not so, Moody’s says in the memo dated Oct. 7.

        ” We believe the government would continue to pay interest and principal on its debt even in the event that the debt limit is not raised, leaving its creditworthiness intact,” the memo says. “The debt limit restricts government expenditures to the amount of its incoming revenues; it does not prohibit the government from servicing its debt. There is no direct connection between the debt limit (actually the exhaustion of the Treasury’s extraordinary measures to raise funds) and a default.


        • magus71 said, on October 10, 2013 at 9:22 am

          He lies all the time. He gets hand waves from his fans. He’s not Lawful Evil, he’s feckless.

          • T. J. Babson said, on October 10, 2013 at 1:58 pm

            Magus, can you comment on Bachmann’s “End Time” comment? Mike brought it up as a case of extreme rhetoric on the part of Republicans. However, if 70% of Syrian rebels are Jihadists, is it really wrong to say we are arming terrorists?

            • magus71 said, on October 10, 2013 at 7:46 pm

              What Bachmann actually said:
              “President Obama waived a ban on arming terrorists in order to allow weapons to go to the Syrian opposition,” Bachmann told Markell. “Your listeners, U.S. taxpayers, are now paying to give arms to terrorists including al Qaeda.”

              “This happened, and as of today, the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists, now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end time history,” Bachmann added.
              Bachmann went on to say that although she believes this to be a sign of the end times, she is not fearful: “Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice, Maranatha, come Lord Jesus, His day is at hand,” Bachmann said. “When we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this: that these days would be as the days of Noah.”
              She is clear that she does not necessarily see this as something bad. As far as Mike’s comment about Obama’s innocence due to fate: The Bible says: “He said to His disciples, “Offenses will certainly come, but woe to the one they come through!”~Luke 17:1 Just as Judas was used by God to send Christ to the Roman authorities, so must a man usher in the end of time. It seems that God will simply use a man who is very evil of to do great evil. But the Bible also says: “What you intended for evil, God made good.” ~Genesis 50-20. Bachmann does not directly attack Obama in this line, but uses his wrong-headed policy to illustrate the point that wrong has become right, what is bad for America is thought to be good by Obama.

      • T. J. Babson said, on October 10, 2013 at 5:05 pm

  2. magus71 said, on October 9, 2013 at 9:24 am

    Mike: Eternal pundit of the Left. Thus damaging his reputation as a philosopher.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Niall Ferguson on Paul Krugman.

    “Let those who are without error cast the first stone,” Krugman wrote back in 2010. Unfortunately, this is not an injunction he himself has heeded. Repeatedly, over the last five years, he has heaped opprobrium on others. His latest performance is characteristic; perhaps not quite intentionally he even refers to “my own unpleasantness with Ferguson”.

    Let us leave — for the moment — the question of the future size of the federal debt, which I have dealt with elsewhere and shall return to in a subsequent article. My purpose here is simply to challenge Krugman’s right to behave in this way. Even if he were nearly always right, there would be no justification for his lack of civility. But he is not nearly always right. There is therefore no justification for his unshakeable certainty either.

    Krugman reserves a special contempt for people who, in his words, “take a position and refuse to alter that position no matter how strongly the evidence refutes it, who continue to insist that they have The Truth despite being wrong again and again.” He calls this “derping.” The awkward thing for Krugman is that “being wrong again and again” perfectly characterizes his own commentary on what proved to be one of the crucial issues of the financial crisis: whether or not Europe’s monetary union would survive it.


  4. T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Arnold Kling on Paul Krugman. Mike, what do you think of type M arguments?

    Dear Paul,

    You might remember me from graduate school at MIT. I would like to ask you a question about what constitutes a reasonable argument.

    For example, suppose I were to say, “We should abolish the minimum wage. That would increase employment and enable more people to climb out of poverty.”

    There are two types of arguments you might make in response. I call these Type C and Type M.

    A hypothetical example of a Type C argument would be, “Well, Arnold, studies actually show that the minimum wage does not cost jobs. If you read the work of Krueger and Card, you would see that the minimum wage probably reduces poverty.”

    A hypothetical example of a Type M argument would be, “People who want to get rid of the minimum wage are just trying to help the corporate plutocrats.”

    Paul, my question for you is this:

    Do you see any differences between those two types of arguments?

    I see differences, and to me they are important. Type C arguments are about the consequences of policies. Type M arguments are about the alleged motives of individuals who advocate policies.

    In this example, the type C argument says that the consequences of eliminating the minimum wage would not be those that I expect and desire. We can have a constructive discussion of the Type C argument — I can cite theory and evidence that contradicts Krueger and Card — and eventually one of us could change his mind, based on the facts.

    Type M arguments deny the legitimacy of one’s opponents to even state their case. Type M arguments do not give rise to constructive discussion. They are almost impossible to test empirically.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 9, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      A hypothetical example of a Type M argument would be, “People who want to get rid of the minimum wage are just trying to help the corporate plutocrats.”

      Assuming that the objective of this argument is to disprove a point by referencing the irrelevant circumstances or qualities of those making the claim (the plutocrats in this case), then this argument would be what philosophers call an ad hominem fallacy (circumstantial in the example given).

      Addressing motives can be a relevant point of discussion, though-after all, bias has an impact on the credibility of a source.

      • WTP said, on October 10, 2013 at 9:18 pm

        though-after all, bias has an impact on the credibility of a source.

        And who is without bias?

        Not directly pertinent, however informative as to socialist arguments…these weaseling tactics have been SOP for socialists since the very beginning. Ran across this quote from well over 150 years ago. As true today as then:

        “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

        Frédéric Bastiat

  5. ajmacdonaldjr said, on October 9, 2013 at 10:42 am

    Political optics, style points, hyperbole, and other excesses of defective rhetoric are the order of the day in Washington. The Washington politicos are all about propaganda, public relations, and political theater, and have no interested in representing and serving the people. Everything in Washington is symbolism over substance. The politicos words are vacuous. Their actions are selfish and harmful to others. The Washington government is and has been — for many, many years — evil, not good. The very opposite of good government.

    Evil and Oppression

    “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
    but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
    and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear.
    For your hands are defiled with blood
    and your fingers with iniquity;
    your lips have spoken lies;
    your tongue mutters wickedness.
    No one enters suit justly;
    no one goes to law honestly;
    they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
    They hatch adders’ eggs;
    they weave the spider’s web;
    he who eats their eggs dies,
    and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
    Their webs will not serve as clothing;
    men will not cover themselves with what they make.
    Their works are works of iniquity,
    and deeds of violence are in their hands.
    Their feet run to evil,
    and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
    their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.
    The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths;
    they have made their roads crooked;
    no one who treads on them knows peace.

    Therefore justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not overtake us;
    we hope for light, and behold, darkness,
    and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
    We grope for the wall like the blind;
    we grope like those who have no eyes;
    we stumble at noon as in the twilight,
    among those in full vigor we are like dead men.
    We all growl like bears;
    we moan and moan like doves;
    we hope for justice, but there is none;
    for salvation, but it is far from us.
    For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
    and our sins testify against us;
    for our transgressions are with us,
    and we know our iniquities:
    transgressing, and denying the LORD,
    and turning back from following our God,
    speaking oppression and revolt,
    conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.
    Justice is turned back,
    and righteousness stands far away;
    for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
    and uprightness cannot enter.
    Truth is lacking,
    and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.”

    Judgment and Redemption

    “The LORD saw it, and it displeased him
    that there was no justice.
    He saw that there was no man,
    and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
    then his own arm brought him salvation,
    and his righteousness upheld him.
    He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
    he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.

    According to their deeds, so will he repay,
    wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
    to the coastlands he will render repayment.
    So they shall fear the name of the LORD from the west,
    and his glory from the rising of the sun;
    for he will come like a rushing stream,
    which the wind of the LORD drives.”

    ‘And a Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the LORD.

    “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore.’” ~ Isaiah 59

  6. magus71 said, on October 10, 2013 at 9:20 am

    Only 10 percent of people have been able to successfully enroll on the website. Hawaii got zero (0) signups. This is what happens when you try to centrally plan on a national level, and to this extant. It’s only the beginning of our woes.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 10, 2013 at 2:11 pm

      Not to worry-the End Time will solve all these problems.

      • WTP said, on October 10, 2013 at 5:52 pm

        Again with the hand wave. I though it was FSU that had the circus training.

      • magus71 said, on October 10, 2013 at 7:04 pm

        The End of Time will cure everything, except for Bush’s mistakes. As Obama has reminded us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: